Your Breath is Your Friend

Blog Post by Jeannie O’Neill, FLSM Education Director

When I lead trainings, retreats, or workshops on meditation one of the first things I hear people say is that they cannot meditate or that they are just not good at it. I remember a time I felt the same way, that meditation was supposed to look and feel a certain way and my mind was too busy to be good at meditation. Thankfully I was able to connect with amazing teachers like Jack Kornfield, Claire Rogers, and Sharon Salzberg, who quickly taught me that I could just sit in awareness and my meditation was perfect exactly as it was. One of my favorite quotes by Sharon Salzberg is “we don’t meditate to get better at meditating, we meditate to get better at life.” This felt so freeing to me.

Today I would like to offer an exploration of concentration. Doesn’t that sound like a fun adventure? The best part of this exploration, is that it involves something that you do everyday, all day long. No new skill required. Breath practice entails paying attention to your in and out breath. You will notice that your mind starts to wander, which is a natural thing for it to do. Rather than telling yourself a story about how you have failed at meditation, instead return to noticing your in and out breaths. As you move through the practice you are training yourself to stay in the moment. Be gentle with yourself as you notice your thoughts drifting back to past experiences, or floating ahead to what the future might bring. Return again and again to the present breath moment.

To begin, sit comfortably and relax. I frequently instruct my beginning meditation students to get comfy and cozy. Feel your back supported and relaxed while your spine is erect and tall. Be at ease in your physical body as much as possible. It is harder for your mind to settle if your body is not in an easeful place. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable, or soften your gaze while your eyes stay open. Notice where you feel your breath. Is it in your nostrils, your throat, chest, or belly? Wherever you naturally notice the breath, rest your attention in that area. Focus on following and feeling one breath from the beginning to the end.

If other things start to pop up for you, sounds, sensations, or emotions, just let them float up and away. Do not try and follow them and certainly do not attack them for interrupting your practice. They are doing exactly what they are meant to do. Come back to your breath. Imagine you see a friend in the distance, that friend is your breath. Now, imagine that between you and that friend is a crowd of people, the crowd is your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Do not shove the crowd out of your way, just gently move past them. Weave through the crowd to return to your breath friend.

If you get lost, or distracted, just return to the breath as soon as you notice. This might happen a dozen or a thousand times. It does not matter, it is the very heart of the practice. Just one breath at a time. The practice is to gently let go and simply return, over and over. With kindness and compassion, redirect yourself to your breath.

See if you can bring an awareness to your breath several times throughout your normal daily activities.

The key to this practice is to not judge yourself or cling to any expectations. I think that often people imagine meditation to look like a mystic person in lotus position floating away in a state of bliss. When this is not their personal experience there are thoughts of failure or inadequacy. Meditation might feel frustrating, elating, energizing ,or even a little groggy or sleepy at times. There is not one right way, or one right result. It is all grist for the mill. Helping you learn about yourself, create skillful thoughts, and awareness of what is inside you.